Legendary apple tradition preserved by family farm

By Matt Reese

Ralph Hugus is the third generation of his family growing apples on the Fairfield County Hugus Fruit Farm.

Local legend tells of a visit from Johnny Appleseed to the home of Sarah Seine and her children among the rolling wooded hills of what is now eastern Fairfield County. If the legend is true, the Hugus family has maintained Johnny Appleseed’s apple tradition on that farm since the early 1900s when Ray and Bernice Hugus planted peach and apple trees.

The fruit was a part of a general livestock and grain farm back in the early days, but became the main focus of the Hugus farm after World War II when the dairy was sold. The retail apple and peach business has been a family venture ever since.

“Direct marketing our apples has always been our main focus,” said Ralph Hugus, the current owner of the farm and the third generation of his family on the land. “We’re not a big enough operation to do well with wholesale and the logistics of doing u-pick in our orchard really do not work for us. We sell retail apples peaches, plums, and pears. ”

The farm grows 23 varieties of apples with Yellow Delicious, Winesap, HoneyCrisp, Ginger Gold, GoldRush, and Pink Lady being among the most popular. With harvest wrapping up, 2010 has been a great year for apple production on the Hugus Fruit Farm and generally good around the state.

“This has been a fantastic year for apple production. The quality, volume and everything have been just right,” Hugus said. “The summer heat was a plus and a minus. The heat and sun made for sweeter apples with better flavor, but we did have a few apples that were sun burnt. They basically cooked on the tree. That was not a big enough percentage to make any difference, though. We had the rains when we needed them all along. Dry conditions are not generally that serious of an issue with apples. Apple trees in general will tolerate dry weather better than other crops.”

Some parts of the state suffered from a late frost that hurt apples.

“We were quite fortunate with frost,” Hugus said. “We had a few frost rings on some of our apples that are a sign that we came really close to having a bad frost, but we dodged it. It was sporadic. People around Athens got frosted badly and another orchard north of Zanesville got it pretty badly.”

The warm spring and summer weather that followed, however, pushed the apple crop along quickly for an early harvest.

“We had an early spring and a warm summer, so we’re running a good two weeks ahead,” Hugus said. “We’ve always told customers to call us at a specific time to get specific varieties. This year they’ve been calling two weeks late because we’re two weeks early with harvest.”

The majority of this year’s top-notch Hugus apple crop is sold directly from the farm, though Hugus fruit is also a popular attraction at two area farmers markets and a stand at the county fair. Growing in popularity with customers each year is the cider from the farm.

“Our cider market has been increasing. In grocery stores cider is of marginal quality. It has preservatives in it, which affect the flavor,” Hugus said. “Because our customers know where our cider is coming from, our cider market has been progressively increasing every year. It is probably grown to 25% or 30% of our total production.”

Several years ago, the future of Hugus cider production was at a crossroads. The cider had been treated with ozone to eliminate pathogens, and, while effective and still used for treating water and other products for human consumption, the treatment was no longer permitted for apple cider.

“We had been using ozone and it was working well until the state said they couldn’t use it any more,” Hugus said. “We had made a big investment in that machine and after we bought it and used it, they said we couldn’t use it any more. We had to throw away that big investment. I think that dealing with that kind of government regulation is the hardest part of the business.”

To continue making cider to sell, the Hugus family had to make another big investment in equipment for treatment with ultra-violet light rather than rely on pasteurization.

“UV treated has been worth the effort and investment. It is part of the increase in our business and now we press cider for quite a few other others orchards. Several of those orchards own their own presses, but they are unwilling to buy the UV machine,” Hugus said. “The pasteurization affects the flavor and nutritional quality of the cider. My customers understand the difference because I have educated them about it.”

Hugus also attributes some of the increase in the popularity of the retail cider and apples to the recent emphasis on buying food locally.

“If you are buying straight from the orchard, you know you’re getting the real thing. In the grocery, you don’t know where it’s coming from,” he said. “There definitely are more people coming out because that marketing is effective. It makes sense. They know these apples haven’t been shipped across the country. That is why we’re probably selling 80% retail and the majority of that is straight from our farm.”

Farmers markets have also gotten more popular.

“There was a big jump with the farmers markets when gas prices went up a couple of years ago,” he said. “The farmers markets have increased in popularity because the fresh products are coming to them rather than them coming to us.”

While more people are buying locally, they are buying fewer apples.

“The numbers of customers are increasing, but they are buying smaller quantities of apples, primarily for fresh eating,” Hugus said. “There are fewer people baking and canning.”

As a result of this trend, sales have remained steady for Hugus Fruit Farm in recent years. Having a long history in the area has helped the farm develop a loyal customer based and a Web site has been a very effective tool for reaching new customers. Ralph’s wife, Nancy, spent around 100 hours getting the initial Web site set up and she spends a couple of hours a week updating it.

“The Web site has been the most effective advertising tool we’ve had since we started it,” Hugus said. “Customer loyalty is huge for us too, just because we’ve been here so long and we’ve worked hard to build our reputation. I don’t know how you quantify it, but working with your family on the farm is definitely a nice way of life.”

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